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Expert Alert

Ohio teen accused in shooting calls attention to the impact of incarcerated parents

May 2, 2012

An Ohio teenager accused of opening fire in Ohio’s Chardon High School will be in court this week to determine if he is competent to stand trial. The February 27 attack left three classmates dead, injured others and left a town shaken by the event.

Since the original crime, some have questioned the young man’s home life as a contributing factor to the violence. The shooter’s father has served time in prison on assault charges.

A University of Minnesota expert who could comment on the impact of incarcerated parents on adolescents is:

Rebecca Shlafer, post-doctoral fellow and developmental psychologist with the Prevention Research Center in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Adolescent Health.

Shlafer, who recently wrote about the compound factors impacting teens with parents serving jail or prison time, says that these adolescents face a variety of issues at home beyond the prison or jail sentence.

“Many risk factors play a role in the development of teenagers with incarcerated parents,” explains Shlafer. “Some may experience poverty or may be struggling to build a relationship with a caregiver, along with pressures from school, society and the stigmas attached to parental incarceration.”

Compared with younger children, adolescents face unique issues when coping with the incarceration of a parent. This is because a teenager both understands the action and consequences of the action, and may have witnessed an ongoing violent situation. These issues are particularly common in families handling a domestic violence conviction.

Because of these varied struggles, teenagers with imprisoned parents may be more likely to engage in antisocial activity. But there are several positive ways caregivers, classmates, counselors and others can help encourage affected teens to stay out of trouble.

•    Develop a positive caregiver relationship, even if it isn’t with the primary caregiver.
•    Ensure the teenager has strong connections within his or her peer group. Even one good friend is enough.
•    Encourage engagement in the classroom or after school activities, like sports, drama or mentorship programs.

Despite the major impact this experience can have on a child’s life, there is a lack of information on how many children and teenagers are impacted by the incarceration of a parent, particularly in Minnesota. Shlafer hopes to see a national research agenda, aimed at better understanding the needs of this population.

“The amount of people we’re incarcerating is a major public health concern,” says Shlafer. “We don’t consider the collateral damage.”

To schedule an interview with Shlafer, contact Caroline Marin, (612) 624-5680 or crmarin@umn.edu.

Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today’s breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit www.umn.edu/news. Views expressed by experts do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Tags: Academic Health Center

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